No sweets without sweat during Konya sugar beet season

No sweets without sweat during Konya sugar beet season

Wilco Van Herpen Hürriyet Daily News
No sweets without sweat during Konya sugar beet season

Seasonal workers with forks lever the beets one by one out of the soil. When the beets are too big, they use a special technique to get the beets out of the soil.

It is fall, and this means busy times for a lot of farmers in Turkey. I was in Çumra in the Central Anatolian province of Konya last week, and busy times turned out to be an understatement. What I saw there was more than I would and could have imagined.

I remembered the sugar beet season from my childhood. Every year in November, big trucks loaded with sugar beets would drive through our street and I, as a young boy, together with friends would wait with long sticks and big stones in our hands for the trucks to pass us. Our target was, of course, the sugar beets and nothing in our mind thought about the risks. Once a truck passed, we would throw rocks at the sugar beets on the trucks. With a bit of luck, one or two sugar beets would fall off the back of the truck and that would make our day. Our intention was to give a sugar beet to the horse of Sinterklaas, the man who gives presents on Dec. 5 to all the children in the Netherlands.

During evening time we would put our shoes in front of the fireplace, sing songs and hopefully Sinterklaas would hear our songs and reward us with a present. To be an extra “good” child, I wanted to give Sinterklaas’ horse some food because the poor animal would, of course, be hungry. Years later, I learned that the Sinterklaas story was nothing more than a legend but for years in a row, during Sinterklaas time, I would wait for the trucks to come.

Vast planes of Konya

The vast planes of Konya are famous for the production of corn, wheat and sugar beets. You do not have to be a rocket scientist to understand that sugar beet season has started. Wherever there is a sharp curve or hole in the road, you will see sugar beets that have fallen off the trailer. Follow the sugar beets and your final destination will be the sugar factory of Çumra.

But before I visited the factory, I wanted to see how the farmers were harvesting the sugar beets. There are two ways of harvesting the beets. One is by hand, the other one is with specially designed sugar-beet harvesting machines.

So why harvest the beets by hand if you have machines that can do the job much faster than any person can? The answer is as surprising as it is simple; the machines cannot get all the beets out of the soil. In Konya (and Turkey in general) there is a big problem; a lack of water. Because of this and the Salt Lake (Tuz Gölü) nearby, the soil slowly becomes salty. While watering the crops, the salt comes to the surface and mixes with the soil. This, of course, is a real disaster for the farmer. His soil becomes less fertile and the amount of crops he can harvest becomes smaller and smaller. There are still some very fertile places around Çumra, and that is where they harvest the sugar beets by hand for the simple reason that the beets are too big to be harvested with a machine.

Seasonal workers with forks lever the beets one by one out of the soil. Sometimes the beets are too big to do it with the fork alone though, and that is when they use a special technique to get the beets out of the soil. All the men I saw have a piece of fabric wrapped around their waist. Connected to this fabric is a long metal chain that is connected to the fork. While sticking the fork in the beet and slightly pulling the fork up, they move their hips back at the same time.

It is as if they are dancing the samba – it is all about the hip work. If you have a worker who gets into a certain rhythm, it is very aesthetic to watch the man pulling one beet after another out of the soil. This technique makes the work lighter, and one by one, the beets that can weigh as much as five kilos a piece are pulled out of the soil. Now it is time for the women to do their job. They take the beets and with a long, sharp machete, they cut off the beet’s top and green leaves before throwing it aside. The sugar beets are thrown on a pile that makes it easy for the farmer to collect them.

A life hard to live

During the sugar beet season, the workers live in small tents far away from the civilized world. There is no fresh running water, no electricity and no gas. Their kitchen is outside; they cook their food on a small wood fire. The toilet? You can find it next to the nearest bush. This is how those people live during the two months they work on the land. It is a hard life that not many people can live. So why do they live like this? Money. The people are really poor. I wanted to make pictures of some of those people, but they did not give me permission because they were ashamed of their situation, about what kind of work they were doing and under what circumstances they were living. Fortunately, I did find some people who gave me permission to have an interview with them, and I was allowed to make some pictures of them. For me, this was very important because I wanted to show what difficult circumstances they were living under.

Then there are the machines that harvest the sugar beets. In Turkey, there are two models; one that takes three rows and one that takes six rows of sugar beets out of the soil. The machine lifts the sugar beets up and throws it into a funnel where the machine separates the leaves from the beets. While the leaves are cut into very small pieces and spread out over the soil to fertilize it, the sugar beets are collected in a big depot. Every now and then, the machine empties its load into a truck that is waiting at the side of the field. A big disadvantage is that the machine damages a lot of the beets; those damaged are left on the field.

Especially during the sugar beet season, shepherds know where to go to with his sheep; the fields that have been harvested. Here the sheep find the crushed and damaged beets that they love so much. Running from one field to another, this is one of the best times for sheep on the vast steppes of Konya. Generally, except during springtime, there is not a lot of nice food to find, so the sugar beet season is a big feast for the animals.

Finally the four trailers are full. The farmer is smiling; this turned out to be a good year. He climbs on his tractor, starts the engine and waves goodbye to his workers, heading yonder to the factory.